Fiona Hill came to prominence as an expert witness during the October 2019 hearings by the US House of Representatives on the impeachment of former president Donald Trump. Hill was a senior fellow and Russian affairs specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, and had been an intelligence analyst under former presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama from 2006 to 2009. In 2017, Trump appointed her senior director for European and Russian affairs on his National Security Council staff. She left to return to Brookings in July 2019.
Hill’s testimony captured media attention since, as stated by The New Yorker, “it isn’t every day that a former official in the Trump White House effectively accuses congressional Republicans of promoting ‘false narratives’ in a manner that benefits the Kremlin”. More specifically, she dismissed the Trump Administration’s narrative that it was Ukraine and Russia that meddled in the 2016 US election and directly addressed questions about the pressure that the Trump campaign was accused of levying against Ukraine (with the aim of implicating the son of Joe Biden’s son in corruption). In a direct dig at the Trump administration, she implored Congress to “please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”
How Hill arrived
In my view, what really made Hill stand out was her presence and persona, in particular her directness, confidence and – importantly for Americans – her unusual accent from the Northeast of England. Hill’s dry sense of humour, steeped in intellect and historical allusion, was evident when a Democratic member of the Intelligence Committee got her to confirm that when she was an eleven-year-old schoolgirl, a fellow-pupil had set her pigtails on fire during a school test, and, after extinguishing the flames with her hands, she had completed the test.
However, owing to the damage to her hair, her mother forced her to get a bowl cut, and she wittily recalled that “I looked like Richard III.” She moreover noted in her testimony that her humble roots and working-class accent would have been a career handicap in the Britain she grew up in but escaped in the late 1980s after attending the University of St Andrews in Scotland, and headed to Harvard on a graduate scholarship.
Hill’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee was a ten-hour affair, beginning on the morning of 14 October, 2019, but by the end of the day she was being hailed as a feminist icon. As The New Yorker summed up, “her testimony will also be remembered for her manifest smarts, her directness – a trait of the region where she grew up – her steely self-confidence, and the moral earnestness she displayed.”
Immediately afterwards, the media floodgates opened up, with particular attention given to her modest background (her father was a miner, and her mother a nurse, in a nondescript town in County Durham). After such a noteworthy entrance into the spotlight, a book was always in the offing and one quickly got the impression that Hill had plenty to say, going beyond her personal narrative and delving into topical issues relevant to society and politics.
It was no surprise when There Is Nothing For You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century was published in late 2021. The book’s title is taken from advice given to Hill by her father to leave for greener pastures since there was nothing for her in the area of her upbringing.
There are three parallel narratives running through the book: Hill’s story of her personal journey from childhood to the White House; a comparison of common socio-political-economic trends in the US, UK and Russia from the 1980s onwards; and a commentary on issues surrounding education, class, gender and race.
Hill’s personal story of her escape from relative rags to international prominence is riveting. Brought up in Bishop Auckland, a dying coal mining town, in the forgotten northeast of England, the poverty of her childhood is striking by developed country standards. A smart and diligent child, she won a scholarship to an independent school which she could not attend since the financial aid did not extend to the cost of the school uniform and bus fares which her parents were unable to cover.
Her eventual escape was brought about by a combination of encouraging parents, a few supportive teachers, and an ambitious nature. Perhaps it was not as much of a “fluke” as she mentions, since her sister also reached University, but nonetheless an improbability.
Hill narrates her experiences and incidents of class prejudice and sexism with a dry sense of humour. Her interview at Oxford University is described as an “out of my league” experience, given that her working-class accent attracted condescension from the other applicants, with one of the girls tripping her, so that she fell flat on her face just as the Professor’s door opened for the meeting.
As one door closed another unlatched, and a chance encounter during a visit to St Andrews led to a meeting with a lecturer in the Russian Department who proved to be one of her most important teachers and mentors. She subsequently went as an exchange student to the Soviet Union in 1987, where an American professor encouraged her to apply for a graduate programme in the United States. She duly won a scholarship to Harvard and embarked on a career as a Russia scholar with a growing reputation that ultimately brought her to the White House.
Lost in detail
Hill’s experiences in Trump’s White House are relayed with measure, but capture the volatile atmosphere of the administration as well as the risks, both for staffers and for the country at large. The climate of misogyny and bullying are well-illustrated; for example, she was referred to as the “Russia bitch” by colleagues and there was the constant fear of incurring the displeasure of the President and his family.
Particularly insightful is the observation that the President was vulnerable to flattery from foreign leaders, which created risks from a national security angle. Given the divisions that have widened in the US in recent years, Hill’s fears are that the years of the Trump administration could seem like a “preface, rather than a postscript” to the country’s future.
All of which does lead one to question why she agreed to join the Trump administration in the first place; especially given that she took part in the women’s march in Washington DC in 2017 which clearly indicated where her political sympathies were. Was her decision a triumph of hope over realism, as the author would like to convey, or one of ambition over wisdom?
Where There Is Nothing For You Here tries to leave a mark is in its analysis of trends and issues. Ironically, this is precisely where it seems to run into problems, being heavy on the details – most of which are already well-known from the media – and light on value-adding analyses and prescriptions.
At the heart of the book is a comparative examination of socio-economic trends and conditions in the US, UK and Russia. Hill’s commentary of developments over the last three decades in each of these countries is broadly sound, even if this is territory that has already been covered well over the years. However, the actual comparative scrutiny is limited, and falls short in a few respects.
For a start, while the book emphasises the commonality of trends in all three countries, it does not adequately acknowledge the limits of comparison due to some significant differences – especially between conditions in Russia on the one hand, and the US and UK on the other. For a start the economic turbulence in Russia was sudden, being brought about by a “big bang” transition, while in the US and UK it has been gradual and focused on specific occupations and regions.
Also, per capita incomes were much higher in US and UK, democratic foundations much stronger, and the economic base far more diverse. These differences do matter since they restrict the extent of the analogy and the commonality of the trends and predictions. Her fear that Russia is a “Ghost of Christmas Future” for America has its basis in the threat to democracy posed by increasing polarisation evident in the US. This concern is not entirely unfounded but could have benefited from deeper analysis.
Likewise, some of the comparisons between the US and the UK are also simplistic. For instance, Hill makes a sweeping assertion that the US is more institutionally sexist and racist while the UK is more class discriminatory. However, this segmentation does come across as a little too neat. Could it be that these factors work to different degrees at different stages of one’s career, and could it also be that gender, class and race tend to reinforce each other?
On the issue of race, the book’s observation is limited to the treatment of African Americans by US society and institutions. However, if one extends an assessment of racial treatment in the US to other ethnicities, it is far from clear that the country performs worse than the UK. Asian Americans, including Indian Americans, have thrived economically and socially in the US – until the past decade or so, social and professional obstacles in the UK were perceived by many South Asians to be greater than they were in the US. There is no doubt greater complexity involved, and it may be necessary to look closer at how race and class interact in determining the treatment of minorities.
Likewise, while the UK does have an aristocratic upper class, it also appears to be more apologetic about it, than the US where wealth is openly flaunted. There have also been robust efforts in the UK to counter accent discrimination (just look at the diverse accents of presenters in prominent channels like the BBC) and to overcome the class barriers to admission to elite colleges like Oxbridge.
Hill provides figures to suggest that between 2019 and 2021, both Oxford and Cambridge recorded their highest state school intake of 68%, but does not acknowledge the significant efforts made to achieve this. She appears to be stuck in a time and geographical warp – magnifying her own microcosm and experiences in County Durham – that does not give due to the meaningful progress made in addressing class discrimination in the UK.
This is above all a book about education and the obstacles to social mobility facing children from low-income families in the UK and US. The lessons that Hill draws from her personal experiences are valuable and one can identify four important factors that were key to her success: a) cultural – supporting and encouraging parents; b) institutional – a few supporting teachers, despite attending a less than ideal school; c) personal – the intelligence and ability to take full advantage of the limited opportunities that were available; and d) financial – grants provided by the UK government for low income students to attend university.
The book’s recommendations do attempt to address the institutional and financial obstacles with calls for investment in education and means-tested financial grants. Nevertheless, a pending question is how to address cultural barriers to further education in working class and low-income families, where there are few role models and children are often encouraged to leave school early and seek jobs.
This is not to propagate that all children should attend higher education – to do so would be counter-productive – but to ensure that academically-inclined low-income kids do not fall through the cracks due to inadequate family and community support. Hill does recommend creating networks to benefit low-income students but it would have been interesting to hear her perspectives on addressing the earlier-stage obstacles presented at home.
There Is Nothing For You Here has a fascinating personal narrative, and insights on a range of issues. It would have added greater substantive perspective had the author focused on a few key areas and linked them to her personal story. Instead, it tries to be many things at once and is in places overloaded with details that impact on the coherence of its message. Nevertheless, Fiona Hill has many interesting things to say that are worth absorbing, evaluating and, on occasions, challenging.
Krishnan Sharma works as an economist in New York.
Excerpted with permission from There Is Nothing For You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century, Mariner Books.